Steve Richards: The biggest deficit is democratic

If Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are so keen to implement their small state vision, they should have said more in advance. Voters gave them no authority to act in this way
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The Independent Online

Imagine if Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had announced after the 1997 election that public services were even more decrepit than they had feared and were going to raise taxes immediately in order to improve them. Their extreme timidity in opposition meant Blair and Brown had no mandate to make such a move and would have been slaughtered in the media if they had broken their pre-election promises. They did not dare to do so.

In contrast the coalition, or at least its Conservative wing, is hailed in much of the media for its plans to cut spending in most departments by more than a quarter and put up VAT even though no such revolutionary programme was highlighted in advance of the election. With a lack of logic the coalition's leaders claim their novel arrangement gives them a mandate to act, as if two parties combining legitimises policies never outlined by either. Before the election the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were adamant that they had no need to raise VAT. You will search in vain for any pre-election statement from Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Clegg arguing for large swathes of the state to be cut by more than 25 per cent.

Indeed the pre-election sequence was altogether different. When Cameron gave clearer voice to his anti-state instincts in his party conference speech last October, support for his party declined in the polls. Never knowingly inflexible in the face of obstacles to power, Cameron changed tack and gave several speeches in which he was tonally more sympathetic to the state. By the time of the election the Conservatives' focus was on a cut here and there, but absolutely nothing that would impact on frontline services.

Clegg gave an interview at the start of his conference last year speaking of the need for savage cuts, but by the end of that sunny week in Bournemouth he had qualified his comments. Although the Lib Dems were braver than their new Conservative allies in specifying cuts in their manifesto they did not get anywhere near the quarter of public spending about to be slashed.

Almost certainly the coalition won't succeed in implementing such a reduction, in spite of the current crusading zeal within No 10 and the Treasury, one that is genuine and well intentioned. Energetic zeal tends to be a dominant characteristic at the start of a crusade rather than at the end, or even in the middle. In opposition Cameron and Osborne changed their economic policies several times and I anticipate several more changes of direction as they head off on their self- proclaimed unavoidable journey. But the intention is clear. They plan to cut on a scale and at a pace that makes the 1980s seem like a decade of recklessly big government.

The wisdom of replacing government spending with a private sector-led recovery at a point when the rest of Europe is contracting will continue to be the subject of much debate. I note that in an attempt to win the debate Osborne cites the cuts being planned elsewhere in the EU. The contraction of other European economies might allow the Chancellor to claim vindication but is unlikely to help an export led recovery in the UK. Presumably in the coming months a local police station or Sure Start centre will close, to be replaced by a bright new business that will struggle to trade in a declining European market. This is seen as good news for the British Chancellor because countries are following his Thatcherite instincts.

There are odd contortions wherever we turn. Cuts in Germany and France are good news for Osborne. When it was revealed last week that Britain was borrowing less than forecast this was seen as bad news for the Chancellor as he wanted more evidence of crisis in order to justify his revolution. Bad news becomes good. Good news becomes bad.

A coalition embarking on its topsy-turvy revolution does not have a mandate to do so. This is more than a theoretical issue. Sweeping cuts and additional tax increases imposed without a degree of electoral legitimacy are likely to lead to higher levels of unrest. Adding together the support of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems from the last election is not enough. Nor is it adequate for the coalition to offer a consultation with the public now, a move the largely supportive Lord Lawson rightly describes as cosmetic.

I have some sympathy with politicians in relation to calls for pre-election candour. If they are too candid they will lose elections. It is a matter of degree. Probably there was some space in 1997 for Blair and Brown to put the case for immediate increases in public spending given the dire state of hospitals, schools and transport. If they dared to occupy such thorny pre-election terrain they would have had the chance to increase spending more evenly and in less fraught circumstances than those that marked their second term. Similarly if Cameron, Osborne and Clegg want to implement their small state vision so quickly they should have said more in advance, not as much as they are declaring now the election is safely over, but not as little as they did up until 2 May. The voters did not give them the authority to act in this way.

The support of some newspapers should not be mistaken for a mandate. A few of them always oppose public spending in general and then scream with anger about the impact of specific cuts. The same applies to opinion polls showing support for "cuts". If voters were asked whether they supported better equipped schools or cheaper train fares they would also say "yes" by a big majority.

I cannot recall an equivalent gap between pre-election statements and post-election implementation. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher was wise enough not to spell out in detail the 1981 Budget, the shrine for monetarists in the current coalition, but she argued openly for a shift from direct to indirect taxation and made clear she would take on the trade unions. Voters knew where they stood when she arrived at No 10. In 1992 John Major was not exactly candid when he promised no new tax rises, but he had some excuse for an imposed change of course after Britain fell out of the ERM. Cameron, Osborne, and Clegg pretend the economic situation is worse than they realised; yet nothing of significance has changed since the election.

Perhaps the coalition needs unexpected "good" news such as an economic humiliation on the scale of the ERM withdrawal. Until then Lib Dem MPs have every right to vote against elements of the Budget. None were elected to vote for them.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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